New Switchblade Robot Design is Leaner, More Agile

UCSD's talented tracked robot can stand up and balance on its tippy-toes to climb over obstacles

1 min read
New Switchblade Robot Design is Leaner, More Agile

The first generation of UCSD's Switchblade robot used a battery pack on a big swingy arm-thing to alter its center of gravity enough to balance on its treads and climb stairs.

At the IEEE International Conference on Intelligent Robots and Systems last week, we spotted an updated version of Switchblade, which trades in the external movable mass for a slick compact case. Instead of compromising its balancing skills, this new design (and some extra brains) have made Switchblade more agile than ever, being able to remain stable even when grad students push it with their sandal-clad feet:

This new form-factor makes Switchblade a bit more appealing as a capable replacement for a variety of tactical robots which shall remain nameless but rely on infinitely less cool movable paddle tracks to get themselves over obstacles way less obstacle-y than what Switchblade is able to surmount.

Switchblade has been refined to reduce its cost and complexity, and according to its creator Nick Morozovsky, it's "well suited for a variety of socially-relevant applications, including reconnaissance, mine exploration, and search and rescue." So someone just needs to put it into action already, and give those fancy balancing tricks some practical applications.

[ UCSD Coordinated Robotics Lab ]

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Robot with threads near a fallen branch

RoMan, the Army Research Laboratory's robotic manipulator, considers the best way to grasp and move a tree branch at the Adelphi Laboratory Center, in Maryland.

Evan Ackerman

“I should probably not be standing this close," I think to myself, as the robot slowly approaches a large tree branch on the floor in front of me. It's not the size of the branch that makes me nervous—it's that the robot is operating autonomously, and that while I know what it's supposed to do, I'm not entirely sure what it will do. If everything works the way the roboticists at the U.S. Army Research Laboratory (ARL) in Adelphi, Md., expect, the robot will identify the branch, grasp it, and drag it out of the way. These folks know what they're doing, but I've spent enough time around robots that I take a small step backwards anyway.

This article is part of our special report on AI, “The Great AI Reckoning.”

The robot, named RoMan, for Robotic Manipulator, is about the size of a large lawn mower, with a tracked base that helps it handle most kinds of terrain. At the front, it has a squat torso equipped with cameras and depth sensors, as well as a pair of arms that were harvested from a prototype disaster-response robot originally developed at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory for a DARPA robotics competition. RoMan's job today is roadway clearing, a multistep task that ARL wants the robot to complete as autonomously as possible. Instead of instructing the robot to grasp specific objects in specific ways and move them to specific places, the operators tell RoMan to "go clear a path." It's then up to the robot to make all the decisions necessary to achieve that objective.

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